It’s easy to criticize reporters when they go too far, but what about the times when reporters are pressured to go farther… and they don’t.
Charles Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity after eleven years as an investigative reporter at ABC News and CBS News, as well as a producer for 60 Minutes.
The following story comes from my book, “What Do You Stand For?” in which Lewis describes a time when he chose to hold up on a potentially sensational story rather than yield to the demands of executives.
“Once, back in 1978 or so, when I was 25 years old, I was an off-air investigative reporter for ABC News in Washington. We were deep into an investigation of a troubled federal agency, and I had found some original, circumstantial evidence suggesting possible corruption by a top government official. Specifically, this gentleman had become a millionaire, acquiring more than 30 houses in Alexandria, Virginia in just three or four years. I had spent hours studying dusty grantor-grantee records of real estate transactions, after receiving a ‘tip.’ How could a public official have possibly done this? Had he received some cash from government contractors doing business with his agency?
“My bosses at the network, in Washington and New York, were thrilled with this information. They wanted to film the homes, with the dollar amounts splashed across the screen, and promote the segment very heavily on the network evening news program. This exuberance was coming down from on high.
“I balked, and killed my own story.
“After the initial discovery, I had spoken to the gentleman’s banker, his realtor, and ultimately, the public figure himself. The man and his wife both had advanced degrees from prestigious universities and personal hobbies of buying rundown homes in dubious areas for $30,000 or $40,000, and renovating them and selling them for $100,000 or more. I determined that it was possible to have achieved such wealth, legally and properly.
“My bosses were furious – and there were intense arguments. I was seen as a pain-in-the-ass, self-righteous, professionally naïve or worse, stupid, an inexperienced pup. Nonetheless, I flatly refused to participate any further, or allow my name to be on the story in any way.
“A week later, a well known, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist – a competitor to us – exposed the potential enrichment of this official. The FBI launched an investigation, which lasted for two years. The man and his wife were humiliated and demoralized, and they literally moved away to New England. Ultimately, the FBI reached the same conclusion I had, and no charges were ever filed.
“A dramatic ‘gotcha’ story, laden with qualifiers and caveats, could have been written and aired, based upon what we had. But it would have been disingenuous and a cheap shot.
“I did the right thing, and my news organization was not a party to ruining a man’s reputation. But I was in the doghouse for a few weeks for my inconvenient stubbornness.”
Today Charles Lewis is a Distinguished Journalist in Residence and professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. He was a Ferris Professor at Princeton University in 2005, and a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2006.